It was a Vaclav Havel play that set me on my path. I was working on Temptation at the College of Wooster in 1995. Nothing else was going well in my life at that time, but that play was the most exciting art I’d ever been involved in. The theatre turned into my sanctuary and that hasn’t changed since.
If you don’t know who Havel was, his Wikipedia entry will suffice as well as anything. For something with a little more substance, you should read the NY Times obituary.
I’m going to type in most of a letter he wrote to his wife, Olga, during one of his lengthier prison stays. I think of it often.
August 15, 1981
I’m sitting on a bench in the local micropark, ina good mood and doing what I like best, that is, thinking about what I will do once I’m free again. Therefore I would like to devote today’s letter to several marginal observations of what I assume will be a happier future.
As you know, I’m an inveterate planner and master of ceremonies, and so you can imagine in what incredible detail I construct my sweet fantasies, such as how I’ll go to the sauna, combine it with swimming in the pool and sunbathing, then go home for a snooze, then in the evening put on some nice clothes and go wit you to a good restaurant, and I imagine all the things we’ll eat and drink there etc. etc. When I think about it, all such daydreams have one thing in common: sooner or later, a disturbing question always arises: what then? What next? For the time must come, after all, when – figuratively speaking – I will have swum enough, preened myself enough, eaten enough, slept enough; when I will no longer want to indulge in those delights any more, yet my life will clearly be far from over, and it will be high time – especially after all that – to breathe some meaning and substance into it. All the joys of life – the kind we cling to and look forward to and which ultimately make our lives worth living – occur in time and have a dramatic sequence of their own, from exposition to “catastrophe.” And thus not only do they come to an end, but they do so “catastrophically”: once they are over, one is inevitably overwhelmed by a sensation of vacancy and barrenness; there no longer seems to be anything to look forward to, to cling to, to hope for and therefore, in fact, to live for.
For example, if I imagine that rare and wonderful moment when I get an idea for a play, an idea so fine and so gratifying that it practically knocks me off my chair, and if, in a kind of powerful trance, I imagine actually turning the idea into a play I’m happy with, then having it neatly typed out, reading it to some friends who like it, and even finding theaters that express an interest in putting it on – imagining all that, I must also necessarily imagine the moment when it’s all over and the awful question comes up again: “Well?” “Is that all?” “What next?” I would even venture to say that the more “serious” and time-consuming the activity that lends meaning to life, the more terrifying the emptiness that follows it.
Most people’s lives, it seems to me, are fragmented into individual pleasures and it is precisely these individual pleasures that give people the elementary and essentially spontaneous feeling that life has meaning. To put it another way, such pleasures ensure that the question of what life actually means never comes up. The first, or rather the most frequent occasion for posing this all-important question, only arises, I believe, when one first suffers or experiences, existentially, the “gap,” the abyss that separates the pleasures in life from one another. That, at least, is how I feel it. I have thrown myself enthusiastically into all kinds of things, from serving good dinners to working for a “suprapersonal” cause, yet these joyful activities were always restricted to particular temporal compartments of my life relating to a particular event or constellation of events, and thus I have always experienced them as mere “islands of meaningfulness” floating in an ocean of nothingness.
My description of all this may be rather primitive but perhaps what I’m trying to say is clear: one usually begins to pose the question of the meaning of life and reflect on it in a fundamental way when one is ambushed and overpowered by a painful question, “So what?” It asks not simply what will follow when a certain pleasure is over, but also what meaning a finite pleasure can have. In other words, what is the meaning of that which gives our lives meaning, or, what is the “meta-meaning” of the meaningful? It is only when all those thousands of things that impart meaning (spontaneously) to our lives – that seem to make life worth living, or for which we have simply lived – are thus challenged, that the stage is set for us to pose, in all seriousness, the question about what our lives mean.
Posing it then means, among other things, asking whether those “islands” are really so isolated, so randomly adrift on the ocean as they appear in moments of despair, or are they in fact merely the visible peaks of some coherent undersea mountain range?
Thinking of you and kissing you, Vašek